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Types of Essays
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Types of Essays

There are many different types of essay questions that asked for on graduate school applications, but almost all of them fall into four basic categories. In this section we'll discuss these categories and suggest ways you can approach writing an essay around them.

The Significant Achievement essay. These types of graduate school essays are quite common, and you'll be expected to write about some challenge that you met or unique experience that you've had, and how you changed as a person as a result. In such an essay you need to relate a story that will set you apart from other applicants and tell the admissions committee something significant about yourself. The achievement described in the essay doesn't need to be momentous. You don't have to talk about how you climbed Mount Everest or flew around the world in a balloon; just talk about something that's unique to you and unlikely to have happened to other applicants. Nobody expects you to have a list of amazing accomplishments to your credit; you can do those things after graduation. What the applications committee wants to find is a writer with intelligence and a distinctive voice, who can tell a compelling story about his own life, and who will make a good student at their school. Don't come across as conceited, boastful, or self absorbed. That would seriously hurt your chances of getting in. And be sure that the essay really says something about you.

After reading it, the reader should feel acquainted with you in a way that he didn't after reading a dry list of your academic achievements. Even better, the reader should find you likeable and want to know you even better. Emphasize how you were changed by whatever experience you're writing about. For instance, if you persevered in trying out for sports teams or school plays until you were finally accepted, explain how this made you less shy or helped you overcome your fear of failure. If you took care of a sick parent, describe how it made you more sympathetic to the problems of other people. This is an opportunity to tell your own unique story. Tell it in a way that's interesting, don't brag, and be sure your spelling and grammar are immaculate. Do all of these things and it will set you apart from other applicants.

The Important Issue essay. For a law school essay, you'll often be asked to write about some controversial issue that you feel strongly about and express an informed opinion about it. The goal of this essay is to show that you're aware of the world around you, that you are capable of thinking about things critically, and that you can reason logically. Explain why the issue is meaningful to you and how it affects you, either directly or indirectly. You'll need to walk a delicate line in terms of tone. You don't want to use incendiary language or show disrespect for those who disagree with you on the issue; you want to demonstrate that you're capable of seeing sides of the issue other than your own and that you've considered all of the ramifications of your position, how people of all types will be impacted by it, and what the consequences of your position will be for society as a whole. Your position should not be one that you've taken on the basis of narrow self-interest. If you come across as a hothead who has failed to think the issue through, you won't impress the committee. But you also don't want to come across as someone who is too timid to commit to an opinion. If you state your position as you would in a formal debate, calmly present the evidence for it, and make your argument, you'll do fine.

Types of Essays

The Profound Influence essay. In this type of essay, you'll be asked to name a person or a work of literature, music, art, etc. that has influenced your life and changed who you are. There's no limit on who or what you can choose. It can be anyone who has ever lived, any book or story ever written, your favorite painting, a verse of scripture, a play, a movie-the choice is entirely yours. If it's a person, it doesn't even have to be a real person; it can be a fictional character. You don't need to give a detailed description of the person or the work. However, you need to describe at some length what it is about this person or thing that strikes a chord in you. What about the subject moves you or inspires passion in you? Obviously, the subject will need to be something you're passionate about. Don't be obvious or cliched in your choice and don't choose someone-Mother Theresa, Dr. Martin Luther King-just because you think this is what the reader will want to hear (though if these people have had a genuinely profound influence on you, you should certainly write about them). If you don't really feel passionate about the subject of the essay, this will come through in your writing. Bear in mind that the admissions committee reads thousands of these essays each year and will know if you're just telling them what they want to hear. The key is to be real; talk honestly about how you became the person you are today because you were fortunate enough to learn about this person or see this movie or read this book.

Why Us?/Future Goals essay. In these types of essays, you'll explain why you've chosen this particular school and graduate program, how you think the program will help you achieve your goals and why you think you'll fit in. Although we usually counsel honesty in your responses to these essays, this might be a case where full disclosure would not be in your best interest. For instance, if the school you're applying to is your seventh choice after Harvard, Stanford, and several others, maybe you shouldn't mention that you're applying to this school only because you don't think the others will take you. Neither do you want to gush excessively about the school to which you are applying; this could come across as fawning and obsequious. Don't say that you think it's the greatest school in the western hemisphere, but state that you know something about the college and feel that it has strong points that make it worth your consideration. Be specific about these strong points. If you're looking to earn a graduate degree in science, mention a notable scientist or two who studied at the school. If you're a business major, talk about some CEO who graduated from the program and went on to turn a minor corporation into a Fortune 500 company. Did other members of your family attend the school? Mention that. If you can't think of anything positive to say about the school-well, why are you applying there? If a degree from the school is worthless, it won't be worth your time to attend it. But if you feel that an education at this school will help you accomplish things after graduation that you would not otherwise be able to accomplish, tell them about it in this essay.

Last Updated: 10/01/2013

 
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